Understanding the Five Principles of Grief


By Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT

PRINCIPLE # 1: Grief is the natural response to loss. What you experience after a loss is absolutely normal to human beings. Grief is the love or emotional investment expressed for the person who died.  So in your struggle with the pain of the moment you can be comforted that you are not alone in the struggle.  You can find comfort also in knowing you are not suffering an abnormal emotional, mental, spiritual or physical state that needs to be cured or corrected. Often mourners feel that no one else can understand what they are going through.  There are some common emotions and experiences to which the majority of mourners can relate.  These shared emotions and experiences can give you the individual mourner an encouraging message that you have the power to endure the pain of grief if fellow mourners have endured their pain. You can find strength to endure the emotional pain of the moment if you understand what you feel is a normal human response and a continued expression of the love and emotions you have for the one who died. The relationship with your loved one has not died; it has just changed and can be maintained.  The pain of the moment is well worth bearing to be able to carry your loved one into the future with you.

PRINCIPLE # 2: Emotions experienced during grief are neither good nor bad. They just are.

One reason that many mourners avoid the painful emotions of grief is because they fear the loss of control and rationality that seem to happen when they allow themselves to experience uncomfortable, demanding emotions.  Let’s state the obvious.  Control is an illusion.  We think we have control in our lives until something we would not choose happens - such as the death of a loved one. No one controls their grief emotions.  Who would choose the unpleasant, uncomfortable and often painful feelings of sadness, depression, anger, guilt or regret?  Yet these are part of a healthy grief experience. If grief has a purpose as an emotional transition toward healing, then maybe the emotions of grief have purpose also. Grief emotions could be helping us to become reflective, to process grief and to take a detailed inventory of how the loss has impacted us.  With that inventory we are equipped with valuable information that will help us to choose our path toward joy and healing.

PRINCIPLE # 3: Grief emotions will be dealt with...now or later.

No matter what the mourner does he or she cannot escape painful emotions after the death of a loved one.  Remember the last time you were on your cell phone and a child tried to get your attention?  That child was relentless.  No matter how much you passionately gestured and mouthed that you were on the phone, that child needing your attention did not give up.  They got your attention. Grief emotions will not be denied.  They are relentless and will be dealt with now or later.  Again no one controls or chooses their emotions, especially during grief.  Think of a huge cauldron with a fire going under it.  If the logs in the fire suddenly break, the flames surge around the cauldron.  Then everything on the bottom of the pot boils up to the top.  Grief emotions are the same way.  When a loved one dies, the uncomfortable, unpleasant and painful emotions of grief boil to the top.  Mourners can’t always control or choose what they feel. Although mourners cannot select their emotions, they can determine how they respond to grief and its pain.  Mourners are not powerless victims of grief. They are empowered with the choice of responding in ways that are healthy, appropriate, and constructive.  These choices can position them to endure the pain of grief and to progress toward health and healing.

PRINCIPLE # 4: Grief is an individualized experience. Everyone does not grieve in the same predictable way.

The individual mourner’s grief is shaped primarily by the one-of-a-kind, unique in all the universe relationship that they had with their loved one.  Therefore, every mourner’s grief is different and unique although there are commonalities or shared experiences among mourners.   No one formula, recipe, set of rules, therapy or solution for surviving grief fits all. With the support of other mourners, the individual has to navigate his or her way through his or her own unique grief.  First though the individual mourner has to acknowledge, experience and express their very personal grief emotions.  The only way to survive is not to avoid grief and its pain, but to go through it.

PRINCIPLE # 5: Grief will not always be like it is in the beginning. As time passes, the grief experience changes.

This basic principle of grief can give the mourner a reason to hope.  In the beginning of grief there is a very intense emotional pain.  Initially grief emotions and pain can be overwhelming and all-consuming.  For the person new to grief, everything in their life can be a memory of the devastating loss.  Desperate mourners often ask, “Will I ever feel joy again?” The good news for mourners is that over time grief and pain change. Time does not heal all wounds, but time gives opportunities for the mourner and his or her grief to change and become different.  Does it get better?  Better is not the right word.  Different describes the nature of grief as it changes.

Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise”  available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Christianbook.com.

The grief survival guide is also available in Spanish as “El Amor Nunica Muere: Aceptando el Dolor con Esperanza y Promesa” on Amazon.com.